The Time Machine

‘Heirs to the Ages’ – ‘The Time Machine’, History, and the Class War

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) wasn’t the first novel to deal with time travel, but it was the first to posit an actual ‘time machine’, coining the term in the process. Until then, fictional time travellers tended to just fall asleep, like the narrator of L.S. Mercier’s Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771), Washington Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’ (1819), ‘Smith’ in W.H. Hudson’s A Crystal Age (1887), and ‘William Guest’ in News From Nowhere (1890) by William Morris. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), meanwhile, Mark Twain’s ‘Hank Morgan’ receives a severe blow to the head, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. The common root is probably the story of Epimenides of Knossos, who supposedly slept in a cave for 57 years before waking with the gift of prophecy. In a heroic piece of cultural retrieval, some science fiction purists now argue that the Spanish writer Enrique Gaspar got there first with El anacronópete (‘The anachronist’) in 1887. Even more obscure is ‘The Clock that Went Backwards’ by Edward Page Mitchell, published anonymously in the New York Sun in 1881 and not reprinted until 1973. It is highly unlikely that Wells was aware of either of these stories, which are best taken as examples of convergent literary evolution, arriving at similar outcomes without any relation. What is beyond question is that it was Wells who popularised the concept of mechanical time travel, establishing the genre archetype we know so well.

In 1895, Wells, a former teacher, draper’s apprentice, and the son of a failed Bromley shopkeeper and a domestic servant, was making a modest living as a relatively unknown science journalist and short story writer, mostly for the Pall Mall Gazette. He transformed his fortunes that year with two novels, The Time Machine (published in May by William Heinemann in the UK and Henry Holt in the US), and The Wonderful Visit (J. M. Dent, UK, and MacMillan and Co, US). The latter, which appeared in September, was a contemporary fantasy in which an angel visits Victorian England, is mistaken for an exotic bird and bagged by a vicar who subsequently nurses him back to health and introduces him to Society. (It was inspired by John Ruskin’s remark that were an angel to visit England it would be ‘shot on sight’.) The more he learns of the country, the more ‘Mr Angel’ is dismayed by the poverty and inequality, eventually falling foul of the local landowner, Sir John Gotch, who denounces him as a ‘Socialist’. The social science of The Wonderful Visit and the evolutionary biology of The Time Machine would go on to thematically dominate Wells’ prolific output of fiction and nonfiction for the rest of his long life.

The Time Machine has an older pedigree and can be traced back to some of his earliest writings. While studying at the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science), Wells was one of the founders of the student magazine The Science School Journal, to which he contributed a short story entitled ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ in 1888, later describing it in his 1934 Experiment in Autobiography as ‘when my real writing began, as well as being ‘the original draft of what later became The Time Machine’. The morally ambivalent time traveller of ‘The Chronic Argonauts’, ‘Dr. Moses Nebogipfel’, considers himself ‘anachronic’ and has invented the machine that will take him to a time more suited to his ‘genius’. There is also more than a little of The Invisible Man about Nebogipfel who, like ‘Griffin’ in Wells’ 1897 novel, arrives out of the blue at an insular rural town and sets superstitious tongues wagging about his reclusive experiments until his workshop is eventually stormed by an angry mob. As ever in Wells’ novels, there is also a nonfiction antecedent, the speculative scientific article ‘The Man of the Year Million’ (1893), in which the author envisions humanity shaped by another million years of evolution, with a huge head housing a massively developed brain, large efficient eyes and delicate hands for precision work, and a greatly reduced body, rather like the Martians of The War of the Worlds, also published in 1897. (The protagonist of The Time Machine tests this theory and finds something much less advanced.) In his preface to the 1931 edition, Wells saw The Time Machine as juvenilia, a ‘very undergraduate performance to its now mature writer, as he looks over it once more’, though this is hardly an objective assessment. In addition to its rich and inventive premise, the novel is also notably well written, Wells’ crisp journalistic style giving it a pace and energy one rarely associates with late Victorian literature. To this day, The Time Machine remains a remarkably ‘modern’ read. That said, Wells playfully adds that he ‘feels no remorse for this youthful effort’, and why should he? It made his name as a novelist and has inspired readers, writers, and filmmakers ever since – as he knew himself by 1931, as he notes in the same preface that he is ‘assured it will outlive him’, which it has. As long as there are readers, The Time Machine will endure.

There’s an elegant simplicity to the structure of The Time Machine, developed perfectly in a mere 35,000 words; like several of Wells’ iconic ‘scientific romances’, it is more novella than a novel. In a tight framing narrative, an old friend of an unnamed, 40-year-old inventor referred to only as ‘the Time Traveller’ begins with an after-dinner conversation in which the inventor explains his theory that ‘Time is only a kind of Space’, following the theories of the mathematician Charles Howard Hinton later published in his 1897 pamphlet What is the Fourth Dimension? (Wells acknowledged in his 1931 preface that this concept of time ‘gave me a frame for my first scientific fantasia’.) He concludes with a demonstration, sending an intricate model ‘into the future’, which, of course, all the guests believe is a clever magic trick. He then shows them the full-size time machine, announcing that, ‘I intend to explore time.’ A week later, the friends assemble at the inventor’s house again, though he is strangely absent, having left written instructions that they start without him. About halfway through the meal, he arrives:

He was in an amazing plight. His coat was dusty and dirty, and smeared with green down the sleeves; his hair disordered, and as it seemed to me greyer—either with dust and dirt or because its colour had actually faded. His face was ghastly pale; his chin had a brown cut on it—a cut half healed; his expression was haggard and drawn, as by intense suffering. For a moment he hesitated in the doorway as if he had been dazzled by the light. Then he came into the room. He walked with just such a limp as I have seen in footsore tramps. We stared at him in silence, expecting him to speak.

The Time Traveller then takes over the narrative, recounting his adventures, which began at ten o’clock that morning, though for him a week has now passed…

More by luck than judgement – he stops the machine when he can no longer stand the ‘nightmare sensation of falling’ – the Time Traveller tells of how he arrived in 802,701 AD. The landscape is described in Elysium, even Edenic terms – ‘the whole earth had become a garden’ – populated by small, child-like humans, the ‘Eloi’ (the plural of the Hebrew word Elohim, meaning ‘lesser gods’, in the Old Testament). They seem healthy and contented; they live in huge communal buildings, and although they wear clothes that are obviously manufactured, they don’t appear to work. The Time Traveller’s initial thought is ‘communism’, and the world of the Eloi would seem to reflect the utopian future of William Morris’ News From Nowhere, which depicted an idealised agrarian society where there was no private property, no money, no government, no cities, no crime, no punishment, no marriage or divorce, and no class system, while people worked on the land because they enjoyed being close to Nature. ‘You see,’ explains the Time Traveller, ‘I had always anticipated that the people of the year Eight Hundred and Two Thousand odd would be incredibly in front of us in knowledge, art, everything.’

But when something’s too good to be true, it usually is. The Eloi eat only fruit ‘with their hands’; their language is rudimentary, and they have no conception of writing. Fire, to them, is a ‘novelty’. They have no sense of social responsibility (the Time Traveller rescues a female, ‘Weena’, from drowning while no one else bats an eyelid), and possess the intellect and attention spans of five-year-olds. Having first jumped ‘at the idea of a social paradise’, the Time Traveller begins to wonder if he has ‘happened upon humanity upon the wane’. This depressing realisation is followed by his terrifying discovery of the ‘Morlocks’, the ‘ape-like’ troglodytes that hunt the Eloi at night, leading to an even more horrific conclusion: ‘These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon.’ The name ‘Morlock’ hints at the Canaanite god ‘Moloch’, who was associated with child sacrifice in the Book of Leviticus.

This is the point at which Wells’ original novel deviates from the film versions: the George Pal adaptation of 1960 starring Rod Taylor, which everyone loves, and the 2002 remake with Guy Pearce directed by Wells’ great-grandson, Simon Wells, which everyone hated. A lot of fun in their own ways (the Simon Wells’ film – though not a patch on George Pal’s – is better than the reviews would have you believe), neither of these movies wants to engage with the politics of Wells’ novel. While, therefore, both take on the original premise, the screenwriters (David Duncan in 1960 and John Logan in 2002) cannot resist making the Eloi more attractively ‘human’ and turning the child-like and doomed idiot Weena into a beautiful love interest (first Yvette Mimieux and then Samantha Mumba). In both cases, the Time Traveller leads the Eloi in revolt against the Morlocks, saves the day, gets the girl and, by implication, sets the human race back on the right track after a bit of an evolutionary wobble. Wells, on the other hand, offers no such clear-cut divisions between good and evil leading to an unproblematically happy ending. His novel, like most of his writing, is a work of complex scientific and social commentary.

Wells was a committed Socialist and an evolutionary biologist. At university, he had studied under Thomas Henry Huxley – known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ for his advocacy of the Theory of Evolution – and Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, the author of Degeneration: a chapter in Darwinism (1880). Lankester theorised that ‘degeneration’ was one of three general paths that evolution might take, the others being ‘balance’ and ‘elaboration’. Wells’ protagonist has travelled in search of ‘elaboration’ but what he finds is ‘degeneration’. As yet unaware of the Morlocks, his initial theory is one of stagnation after all the trials of life – poverty, disease, hunger, war and overpopulation – have been overcome:

I thought of the physical slightness of the people, their lack of intelligence, and those big abundant ruins, and it strengthened my belief in a perfect conquest of Nature. For after the battle comes Quiet. Humanity had been strong, energetic, and intelligent, and had used all its abundant vitality to alter the conditions under which it lived. And now came the reaction of the altered conditions.

He further draws an implicit analogy with the fall of the Roman Empire, a decline that greatly troubled the Imperial Victorians:

No doubt the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived—the flourish of that triumph which began the last great peace. This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.

Although the Time Traveller soon abandons his hypothesis based on new and disturbing information – ‘Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough—as most wrong theories are!’ – this is already a bleak conclusion for the author who once predicted the hyper-intelligent ‘Man of the Year Million’. Although his argument is only half-made at this juncture, Wells is already flying in the face of established Victorian historiography, the so-called ‘Whig Interpretation of History’. In this model – which although essentially teleological is still largely accepted as true to this day, at least outside academia – human history is perceived as a journey from a dark and terrible past to a glorious present and a better tomorrow through democracy, personal freedom, and scientific progress. In evolutionary terms, Darwin had concluded The Origin of Species with a similarly positive sense of forward trajectory, suggesting that it is the nature of Life to evolve into more complicated and perfect forms. As the Time Traveller understands, however, history is much more cyclical than that – as is evolution – with great civilisations rising and falling, degeneration and decay inevitably following the high watermarks of culture and achievement. The monumental architecture he sees scattered around the landscape, slowly rotting away, recalls Shelley’s Ozymandias: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

But, ponders the Time Traveller, noting the Eloi’s sophisticated garments as well as a total absence of factories, shops or any sign of creativity, how were things ‘kept going’? The answer comes with the subterranean Morlocks:

A pair of eyes, luminous by reflection against the daylight without, was watching me out of the darkness … At once the eyes darted sideways, and something white ran past me. I turned with my heart in my mouth and saw a queer little ape-like figure, its head held down in a peculiar manner, running across the sunlit space behind me.

The creature disappears underground, clambering down a shaft into the darkness ‘like a human spider’. The novel now becomes even more radical: ‘Man had not remained one species, but had differentiated into two distinct animals … this bleached, obscene, nocturnal Thing, which had flashed before me, was also heir to all the ages.’ And as a scientific socialist, Wells presents this evolutionary split in terms of class struggle: ‘At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer was the key to the whole position.’ Like all the best science fiction, The Time Machine is much more about the age in which it was written than speculative futurism:

Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth? … So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour.

The social separation between the rich and the poor has now become so extreme that the two classes have evolved into different species. The underground world of the Morlocks is an industrial space (inspired by the Potteries of Stoke-on-Trent, where Wells was staying when he wrote ‘The Chronic Argonauts’), essentially combining the theories of Marx and Darwin. The language the Time Traveller uses to describe this new dynamic suggests revolution or, in Freud’s terms, the ‘return of the repressed’:

The Upperworld people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants: but that had long since passed away … clearly, the old order was already in part reversed. The Nemesis of the delicate ones was creeping on apace. Ages ago, thousands of generations ago, the man had thrust his brother man out of the ease and the sunshine. And now that brother was coming back—changed! Already the Eloi had begun to learn one old lesson anew. They were becoming reacquainted with Fear.

It is at this stage in his reasoning that the Time Traveller realises what the Morlocks are really doing with the Eloi. The proletariat is literally eating the rich.

Political and scientific detachment now fails the Time Traveller, who confesses that ‘I tried to preserve myself from the horror that was coming upon me, by regarding it as a rigorous punishment of human selfishness.’ He even ‘tried a Carlyle-like scorn of this wretched aristocracy in decay,’ but he can’t help but sympathise with the more ‘human’ Eloi while shrinking in disgust from the Morlocks. When he first sees them, ‘The old instinctive dread of wild beasts came upon me,’ and once he learns the truth: ‘there was an altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks—a something inhuman and malign. Instinctively I loathed them.’ Finally, when he arms himself, he admits, ‘I longed very much to kill a Morlock or so.’ Dramatically, this visceral hatred of the antagonists serves the novel’s plot, but symbolically it is more nuanced and less dialectic. As a middle-class Victorian gentleman, the Time Traveller’s reaction to the Morlocks suggests a fear of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie; and, indeed, fear of revolution that had hampered social progress throughout the 19th century in, for example, the brutal government suppression of Chartism and the British working-class movement: a fear that went all the way back to the French Revolution.

Whether this reflects his author’s own class prejudices is less obvious. Wells – like Dickens – came from a lower-middle-class background from which it was very easy to fall into poverty. When his father’s shop failed, his mother was forced to return to domestic service, and Wells’ autobiography describes periods in his childhood when he was hungry and malnourished. It was only through scholarships that he escaped his fate as a draper’s apprentice. In this context, the fear of the proletariat may indicate the transposition of a very real fear of destitution, represented by the Time Traveller’s particular revulsion at being touched by Morlocks. For families like the Wells’, the veneer of ‘respectability’ was just too thin. For Wells the social scientist, this is also a cautionary parable about the catastrophic consequences of the Victorian disconnect between capital and labour to the extent – signalled by the reference to Thomas Carlyle – that The Time Machine is almost a late ‘Condition of England’ novel in the tradition of Mary Barton, Hard Times and Sybil: Or, the Two Nations. The text’s evolutionary futurism seems to be a warning about both capitalism and communism, pushing both systems to their extreme but logical conclusions in which bitter class conflict becomes a dark biological destiny.

Finally, escaping the Morlocks, the Time Traveller goes all the way to the end of the line, witnessing the entropic last act of life on earth, which appears much as it did at the beginning, with basic organisms eating each other on a desolate seashore. En route, in an episode cut from the final draft (later published separately as ‘The Grey Man’), he also sees humanity in its final form, a grey-haired, burrowing, rabbit-like creature, preyed upon by giant insects, which displays features that seem to blend Eloi and Morlock.

When he returns to tell his tale, the Time Traveller wryly remarks to his friends that, ‘Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralised upon the futility of all ambition.’ And this, perhaps, is the ultimate philosophical point of The Time Machine. Measured in geological time, human existence is barely a blink, which is what makes the Theory of Evolution so disturbing to fundamentalist Christians, whose beliefs put us at the heart of creation. In reality, our million years of prehistoric development and 20,000 years of recognisably ‘human’ culture are insignificant compared to the reign of the dinosaurs, which were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for approximately 175 million years and only left the stage because of the bad luck of a global apocalypse. The trouble with time machines, with pre-and post-history, is that they offer a rather unwanted sense of proportion when it comes to the significance of the human condition. And even if we celebrate it, which Wells’ Time Traveller does, off on his search for a better class of person and some point to all those generations of Darwinian struggle and survival, his author reminds us of how fragile it all is, and how easily it could degenerate and regress, a theme he would return to in his next novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. So convinced was he that humankind in the future would be highly advanced, the Time Traveller neglected to carry any supplies with him, no weapons, no medicine, and ‘without anything to smoke’, which he found particularly trying. We last see him equipped for a longer journey, his rucksack packed with needful resources, after which he is not seen again. This is because, as all British kids – past and present – know, he disappeared into the fourth dimension, turned his prototype into the TARDIS, and became Dr. Who.

Stephen Carver

Image: H.G. Wells Time Machine: Steampunk exhibit at the San Diego Automotive Museum.

Credit: Mark Laing / Alamy Stock Photo